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Monday, September 9, 2013

Heaven or Hell - A Crucial Question

Heaven or Hell – A Crucial Question (Revelation 21:3-4)

          Author Rebecca Price Janney begins her book about the way Americans think about the afterlife by looking at Mother Teresa and Princess Diana who died around the same time.  At the British embassy in Washington DC, someone set up a large placard that read, “The angels rejoice for heaven welcomes Princess Diana and Mother Teresa.”  A decade later at a concert in Princess Diana’s honor, the performer proclaimed she was “up there” listening.[i]
          How does he know Heaven is “up there?”  How does he know Princess Diana is in Heaven?  How does he know she is spending her there listening to his concert?  How does he know Princess Diana is in Heaven at all?  Or Mother Teresa for that matter. 
How dare you question her credentials!  Look at all the good she did, all the people helped.  But wait!  Don’t we say salvation by grace?  We receive it.  We don’t earn it.  How could Mother Teresa earn something that can’t be earned?  If anyone deserves Heaven, she does.  Oh?  Doesn’t it say in Romans, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (3:23)? 
Why would the person who made the placard put Princess Diana in the same category as Mother Teresa?
          Janney in her book also quotes a New York City firefighter.  Many of his buddies died on September 11, 2001.  He said, “Heaven has some fire department now.”  Not a one of us would begrudge his feelings.  We say such things when someone we admire or love dies. 
But stepping back from it, we have to ask, did he do any kind of assessment of the spiritual condition of his friends in the fire department?  Or do we just say they deserve Heaven because they sacrificed themselves?   
          I have been at funerals where the deceased was someone who did not participate in church and had not for decades.  The deceased cursed and drank, was crabby and mean, and showed no reverence for God.  At the coffin, one of his old friends standing by wipes his eyes and says, “Well, at least he’s in a better place.”  What is the basis for saying that?
          Janney writes, “Contemporary Americans tend to believe that all people go to Heaven and view the idea of Hell as repugnant.  There is a general assumption that unless someone was a child pornographer, racist, drug lord, or terrorist he or she will go to Heaven.”  Then Janney writes in parentheses, “Of course child pornographers, racists, drug lords, and terrorists also believe they are going to Heaven.”[ii]   Is there more to go on than what we feel and what hope? 
          Some in the church see it in black and white.  A friend of mine told of a funeral where he was one of the pall-bearers.  As they others carried the casket toward the burial site, the officiating pastor said, “He is in Hell.  He did not believe in Jesus and now he is in Hell.”[iii]
          In critical debates among theologians the most commonly held view of Hell going back to the earliest times of Christianity is summarized as eternal conscious torment inflicted and maintained by God.  That serves as a default position, but it is not the only view.
Pastor and author Rob Bell has an issue with this notion of Hell.  On the book jacket of his 2011 book Love Wins is the following quote.  “God love us.  God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely, through no merit on our part … unless you do not respond the right way.  Then God will torture you forever in Hell.”  Huh?
          Bell’s phrase ‘respond the right way’ means offering some form of confession that we are sinners, Jesus died for us, and we receive the forgiveness and salvation from him, because of his death on the cross. Failure to make a Christian confession lands one in Hell, eternally tortured by God.  Bell finds this unacceptable.  How can the God of love sentence nonbelievers to eternal misery in Hell?  Bell does not believe God does things that way.
          And yet, eternal, conscious torment is the traditional Christian perspective.  It is either Heaven or Hell.  They are places.  To go Heaven and avoid Hell, we need to confess our faith in Jesus.  If we don’t, then when we die, a pastor lacking sensitivity may stand at the head of our casket, point, and say, “He’s in Hell.  She’s in Hell.”  If the traditional doctrine of Hell is correct, then this pastor is speaking the truth.  But, even if the traditional doctrine is not right, one thing is certain.  All of us die.  Every single one of us dies.
          What happens then?  Would you like to have legitimate hope that you exist beyond death and your existence beyond death is positive?  And what about friends, people we love who are not in Church, who are not Christians?  They die too. What happens to those not following Jesus? 
          We need help in this conversation.  List to Revelation 20:12-15.
          Revelation, 20:11-15.
12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. 13 And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; 15 and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

            The Bible says something happens; we are judged according to our works. All people are sinners and God absolutely hates sin.  In the book of Genesis, God rains fire from heaven and consumes two immoral cities – Sodom and Gomorrah.  That’s how God feels about sin.  God is depicted as a God of love in the Bible, but God is also a God of wrath.   That is unmistakable. 
          However, all who are in Christ are declared righteous.  Our sins are forgiven and no longer count against us.  So when Revelation says the dead will be judged according to their works, we keep in mind that Jesus’ followers are judged according to Jesus’ works. 
          All the dead of human history– billions of people - are gathered.  The book of life is opened, the names are read.  Death and Hades are thrown into a lake of fire.  These conditions will no longer exist. In the eternal Kingdom of God’s death will be a meaningless word because the concept will have been consumed in the lake of fire.  But not only death.  Verse 15:  “Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life is thrown into the lake of fire.” 
What is it like in that lake of fire?  Some theologians insist it means you’re consumed forever, annihilated.  That’s what fire does.  Others insist that the fire is metaphor and you’ll be awake for eternity suffering as badly as if you constantly felt the burn of flames on your flesh.  A third position is that that the fire purifies.  All the corruption is burned off, one comes out clean, and then finds his name in the book of life. 
In this series, we will look more at these three doctrines of Hell – Annihilationist, Eternal Torment, and Refining which leads all people to salvation.   For now, we simply acknowledge that all people die.  And all people, per Revelation, go through the judgment.  Death itself ends up in a lake of fire. And those not written in the book of life do too. 
In his letter to the church in Thessalonica, the Apostle Paul addresses the issue of death to those who are followers of Jesus.  The Thessalonians were sure of eternal life with God in Christ.  Notice I am not saying they necessarily thought they’d go to Heaven when they died.  The concept of Heaven many have been taught in Churches is not exactly what the New Testament emphasizes.  In the New Testament we read more about living eternally.  The Thessalonians thought that because Jesus has risen from death they would never die.
What we are actually promised is we will join him in resurrection.  Only dead people are resurrected.  When members started dying, the Thessalonians suffered a devastating crisis of faith.  Some of their brothers died, and Jesus had not come back.  What did it mean?
Paul writes in 1st Thessalonians 4:13.
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,[g] about those who have died,[h] so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.[i] 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.[j] 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

          Paul lays out the entire plan.  First, when we grieve our beloved after they have died, our grief is soaked in hope.  Jesus, the Resurrected One, will “bring with him those who have died.”  There will be the archangel’s call and the sound of God’s trumpet.  Then, the Lord descends from Heaven.  The dead in Christ rise.  People who died centuries ago are reconstituted in resurrected bodies and rise to Christ.  Can we picture this?  When we get to end of verse 17, Heaven has come to us.  The promise on which we stand is that we are with Jesus forever.
          Why did Paul write this? So the believers who faced death could encourage one another.  He thought the best thing he could tell them, of all the truths he could share, was they would be with Jesus forever. 
          Hell is horrifying.  I feel myself a character in horror movie.  I feel every awful thing in my bones and I cannot get out.  When that foreboding begins to wash over me, I retreat to the Gospel.
          That’s what Paul is telling us to do. Trust in Jesus.  The faith we have in Him assures us we will be with him.  Whatever Heaven is like, however different than we have maybe been taught to believe, the promise is we will be with Jesus.  The only way our discussion of this topic will be spiritually healthy and helpful is if we trust in Him.  We trust Him with our future and our present. 
          Some believers think the threat of Hell is the best way to motivate nonbelievers to consider turning to Jesus, but not me.  For me, the promise of life with Christ is the drive for sharing faith.  That life begins when one turns to Jesus and continues when we die and then enter the resurrection. 
          When we conclude this series on the afterlife, it will be fine with me if you don’t hold all the same theological positions as I do.  Whether you and I agree or disagree on doctrines of Heaven and Hell, I believe your life and mine will be utterly blessed today – not only in a distant afterlife but also today, right now when we learn how to live in complete trust. We trust Jesus with our very lives and in the smallest bits of our lives and in every bit of our lives. 
          In that we begin to understand and live in the world described in Revelation 21.  There, John sees into Heaven. 
           And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home[a] of God is among mortals.
He will dwell[
b] with them;
they will be his peoples,[
and God himself will be with them;[
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. 
            If we are in Christ, forever begins today.  The more we trust Him, follow and serve Him, and love in His name, the truer our experience of Him with us becomes and the clearer our picture of Heaven is.  It will be familiar even before we get there because we have been walking with Him all along.


[i] Rebecca Price Janney (2009), Who Goes There: A Cultural History of Heaven and Hell, p.9.
[ii] Ibid, p.10.
[iii] As told to me by Jim Greenlee.

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